East Africa’s endangered sandalwood tree is being illegally harvested at a rate that could see it becoming extinct. The misuse of this valuable resource is causing a loss of biodiversity and a source of medicine for local communities.
The increased over-exploitation of this wood in Kenya goes back to 2006, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which lists the tree as threatened. It is also on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Kenya’s government banned the harvesting and trade of sandalwood in 2007. However the trees continue to be cut for their essential oil, which is extracted to manufacture medicines and cosmetics. The whole tree is uprooted to access the sandalwood oil, most of which is found in the roots and trunk.
A burgeoning illegal trade has grown with the demand for this commodity. Trafficking networks in East Africa exploit community forests in northern Kenya to illegally profit from harvesting the endangered tree.
The high demand from Asia for sandalwood oil also drives the trade. In many Asian communities, the oil is popular in socio-cultural and religious ceremonies and in traditional medicine. On the international market, one litre of sandalwood oil sells for as much as $3 000.
According to John Partangu, a community leader in Samburu County, ‘Illicit traders often come to Maralal town and hire local youth who direct them to “technicians” – people with local knowledge in identifying the male and female sandalwood trees. The female tree is prized due to the belief that it yields more oil, although this is unsubstantiated.
‘These technicians then supervise the harvesting of sandalwood from the forests and its transportation on donkeys to local homesteads (by members of the community) where fees for security and storage are paid to locals.’
Wamba-Sura Adoru-Suguta land route
Community members with unfettered access to forests in Lodung’okwe, South Horr and Wamba in Samburu County work closely with ‘technicians’ to identify and harvest trees with high oil potential.
Local youth are paid KSh30/kg for wood and roots harvested from these trees. The sandalwood ‘owners’ – those with rights to access public forests based on their location on community land – are paid KSh300 (US$3)/kg of harvest. The wood is removed from the forests on donkeys and stored in local homesteads, where intermediaries transport it to nearby town centres.
From there, the harvest is moved via different routes to neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania. The Wamba-Sura Adoru-Suguta land route (see map) mainly serves to traffic sandalwood out of Samburu County. The Wamba-Sura Adoru-Suguta-Rumuruti-Nyahururu-Nakuru route enables smugglers to move their illegal goods towards the Kenya-Uganda border.
The town centres along the way serve as venues for repackaging the wood for onward transport. Police vehicles, ambulances, or high-end vehicles are used to move the harvest to designated borders such as the Busia and Malaba crossing with Uganda. These panya routes are illegal entry points used for smuggling goods and people.
The sandalwood is taken across the border to Tororo in Uganda. There it is semi-processed and exported through the Kenyan Port of Mombasa to markets in Asia and the Arabian Gulf, such as India, China, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai. This means that Kenyan security and customs officials have twice the opportunity to apprehend traffickers in their territory.
According to a senior conservation official in Kenya, ‘Sandalwood trafficking in the country is mostly facilitated by political leaders who use their leverage to exploit community resources for personal gain.’
Criminal charges for trading in endangered or threatened species (section 92 of the Wildlife Conservation Management Act 2013) have been brought against Kenya Wildlife Service officers involved in sandalwood trafficking. This shows that the very custodians of Kenya’s flora are part of these exploitative syndicates. It also highlights the governance challenges facing enforcement of environmental laws and the need for better oversight of those tasked with protecting public resources.
The lack of uniformity in regional regulations is also a key enabler of trafficking in East Africa. The sandalwood trade may be banned in Kenya, yet just over the border, a licensed Ugandan factory that semi-processes the wood is a convenient way to make the illegal harvest ‘disappear’. It is vital that environmental regulations in neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda align to the CITES designation of the East African sandalwood as a threatened species.
Tackling this over-exploitation requires a range of responses. Those involved in trafficking must be investigated and prosecuted. Just as important is a concerted effort at the community level in Kenya to preserve this valuable tree. Community-based conservation initiatives are needed to gain local support for protecting and preserving the tree and its socio-cultural value.
Written by Willis Okumu, Senior Researcher – East and Horn of Africa, ENACT project, ISS Nairobi
This article was first published by ENACT. ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.